What Is Free-Choice Learning?

Free-choice learning is a newer term for a very old practice: learning outside the classroom. It’s how we learn every day, no matter where we are, at any age. John Falk and Lynn Dierking, co-authors of Learning Without Limit, are researchers and leaders in the field of free-choice learning. They’ve focused their efforts on the role of free-choice learning in STEM education, studying its efficacy and benefits and the unique opportunity it presents for science and technology learning to reach more people.1

Instead of “equating learning with schooling,” free-choice learning allows individuals to gain knowledge by active learning, letting curiosity and interests be their guide. Falk argues that while free-choice learning is not new, traditional schooling displaced it 150 years ago. Before that, “learning was active, supported by observing others, doing and practicing.” It happened in “small groups typically supported by peers and skilled practitioners,” and perhaps most important, its success was “not something judged by others but…demonstrated through competent actions and deeds in real life.2

As a complement to traditional schooling, free-choice learning can be done anywhere, anytime, and by anyone. So it’s especially easy to incorporate it at home, helping your kids engage with and learn about things that interest them most.

Free-Choice Learning allows children to gain knowledge by active learning.

If your child has expressed interest in dinosaurs, engage your child in critical thinking. For example, “what does a stegosaurus eat?” and “If a stegosaurus munches on ferns, does that make them a herbivore?

How to Practice Free-Choice Learning at Home

With some structure, you can provide your children with an excellent foundation to explore free-choice education right at home. Here are some ideas to get you started on this powerful active learning process.

  1. Allow your kids to pick a subject.
    If your child has expressed interest in a particular subject—space travel or dinosaurs, for example—this step is easy. But depending on their age or level of expressiveness, some children may need a little help. Still not sure? A trip to a museum or paging through a book or home library can help direct them. If they’re interested in multiple subjects, offer them a few options and allow them to choose their favorite.
  2. Gather materials and create.
    Using objects or art supplies from around your home, find a creative assignment for them to build or represent something from their area of interest. For example, ask your child to think about a favorite dinosaur and build a model or draw a colorful picture of it.
  3. Ask questions.
    Engage your child in critical thinking about their project. What does the dinosaur eat? Where does it live? What sounds might it make? How does it protect itself from predators? Ask your child how parts of the dinosaur’s body might enable it to thrive in its environment.
  4. Repeat the process!
    Keep your child’s interest growing by helping them explore more about their subject, or allow them to choose a new subject to explore. A field trip to a park or science museum can pique new interests. Or enroll them in a camp or after-school program to help them learn actively with other kids in a place like STEMful.

  1. Lynn D. Dierking, “Lessons Without Limit: How Free-Choice Learning Is Transforming Science and Technology Education,” História, Ciências, Saúde-Manguinhos 12 (2005): https://doi.org/10.1590/S0104-59702005000400008.
  2. John H. Falk, “Why Free-Choice Learning?,” Institute for Learning Innovation, accessed January 12, 2023, https://www.instituteforlearninginnovation.org/.